Amongst horse people, one of the fastest ways to raise hackles or hostilities is to call someone a “surface worker.” It’s just one of those things that you don’t do in polite company. After all, one of the reasons people are drawn to horses is to enjoy a real and deep connection. To call them a “surface worker” is to accuse them of putting on a a circus act. Certainly, the relationship may look real and geniune; but it’s not. It’s not nothing but an act and fraud.
Given how the word is used and understood, I find it extremely ironic that so few people understand that “surface work” and it’s attendant ideas of conditioned response, sensitization, desensitization and instinct are actually very important to horse training. If you want to have any type of real relationship or meaningful communication, you need to do a lot of very tedious surface work to get there.
High and Low Level Responses
To use scientific terms for a moment, you might think of “surface work” as a low level response and “working deep” as a high level response. A good example that illustrates the difference is found in the experiments of a Russian behaviorist by the name of Ivan Pavlov. (The same Pavlov of dog fame.) During the course of his life, Pavlov scientifically demonstrated the mechanisms that can be used to develop a conditioned response. He showed that animals could associate a very low level behavior (salivation, for example) with an unrelated trigger (such as a ringing bell). At the time, it was a very radical idea.
For much of human history, mankind has been preoccupied with the “rational” mind. You know, that relatively limited part of the psyche responsible for thinking and decision making. And while most thinkers would at least acknowledge that there was an “instinctive” mind, it was primarily thought to control undesirable traits. As such, it should be subjugated to the rational mind at all times. Or at least the thinking went.
Pavlov and colleagues began to change that perception. They demonstrated that conditioning and instinct were neither bad nor good. And the work of later scientists would demonstrate that there are behaviors that should be conditioned. Athletes and musicians, for example, do better when they have mastered basic technical skills at the unconscious level.
This is also true for horses. Yielding to the rope, hind end disengagement, foot placement during a complicated maneuver, or desensitization to a particular object aren’t things that you want the horse thinking about or grappling with very much. They should just flow.
Free the Mind for Other Things
“Now wait a minute!” I can hear you saying. “I don’t want my horse to be some sort of mechanical automaton. I want him to think through his actions. I want communication to be so seamless that when I have a thought, it just happens.”
This is a good point, and I should point out that I am not saying that you should transform your horse into a machine. To do so would remove one of the most compelling reasons to ride or work with a horse in the first place.
What I am saying, however, is that you should consider how low level responses can help refine and give true meaning to your high level communication. Perhaps an example might help to explain my point a little better.
Think about how a doctor does a physical exam. A good physician can run through the whole routine in about five minutes. It goes from the top of the head to the bottom of the feet with more than two hundred individual steps. The doc will check for signs of infection, response to neurological stimuli, irregularities in heart rate, and problems with coordination and balance.
I also happen to know that the first time you do a complete physical exam, it’s utterly terrifying. You aren’t focused on finding anything wrong with the patient, but on getting through the whole procedure. In the front of your mind, you’ll be run a little monologue: “Okay,” you’ll say, “What comes next? Where do I listen with the stethoscope after the second intercostal space?”
That’s why students don’t perform their first physicals on real patients. No patient would ever wait while the student fumbled, groped, and otherwise stumbled through the procedure. Yet, after you’ve been through the process a few hundred times, things change. Instead of focusing what to do, you can start to think about why and how you’re doing it. You’re not listening at the second intercostal space because that’s part of the procedure, but because you’re screening for pulmonic regurgitation (if on the left) or aortic regurgitation (if on the right).
For this change to happen, though, you need to have mastered the procedure at the low level. Once done, you free your mind to think about other things. The monologue isn’t, “What comes next?” But rather, “I hear something irregular, what might that be? What relationship does it have with other signs I’ve seen?”
In the same way, no violinist will give a virtuoso performance if overly worried about fingering or violin hold; and no horse/rider pair is going to get very far if they have to think their way through every little action.
Surface Work and Communication
Not really getting the difference between surface work and deeper stuff might be why it’s so easy to misunderstand this nugget of wisdom from Gail Ivey:
One of the most common methods folks use to get their horses to come to them in the round pen is to “suck” them in, which they believe is “drawing” the horse. They have the horse working out on the edge of the pen, mentally gone, then they step back and create a big hole that the horse kind of falls into, turning toward them, and allow the horse to stop. The horse is still struggling mentally, because he didn’t really choose to be there, he just ended up there because this large space opened up where there was less pressure on him. Often, pretty gentle horses learn to fall into that hole to escape the pressure, and they walk up to the person, they walk right up and mentally go on by them, while stopping their bodies in front of the person.
If you read the passage and thought, “Hey, I do that! … What am I doing wrong? Am I just some kind of surface worker?” You aren’t alone. Nor should you immediately change how you work with horses. What Gail is describing isn’t necessarily bad, but in the same vein, neither is it good. It’s a low level and predictable response to a procedure. Horses have lots of them. When you frighten a horse or apply pressure, they run away. When you put weight on a lead rope, they move to escape it. When you breathe out and relax in the saddle, the horse will slow down and eventually stop. All of these actions are instinctual. Two year olds under saddle for the first time and thirty year old nags will both exhibit very similar behavior.
Which is why good trainers make use of in
stinct constantly. When properly harnessed and focused, it forms the foundations of a “deeper relationship” to be built over time. The problem arises when you forget that the instinctual response is a means to an end and get overly focused on the procedure. You may have the horse in the center of the round pen, but is his mind there? Do you have his attention? Have you started a genuine conversation, or is the horse fiddling with his “cell phone” while you natter on?
If you’re working in the realm of the former, that’s the foundation of good horsemanship. You’re like the medical student who has mastered the simple steps of physical diagnosis. You might even say that instead of monologue, you are now having a dialogue. You’ve asked the horse to walk up to you, face you, be with you and the horse has reciprocated. More importantly, he understands. Tomorrow, you’ll be on his back. By next month, you’ll be throwing ropes or herding cattle.
But if the horse is off somewhere else, you’ll quickly learn a discouraging lesson: eventually, he stops responding to signals or cues. Instead of a dialogue, you’ve probably become overly focused on the procedure and your own internal monologue. When this happens, the horse may become dull and unresponsive, or even dangerous and unpredictable. This isn’t really his fault, he’s just trying to survive in the best way he knows how; but it still isn’t a good or desirable thing.
The difference between “on the surface” or “working deep” lies in engaging the horse and allowing him to make a definitive choice. To do that requires that he understand the options. Low level responses can certainly get you started, they are the common words and phrases at your disposal. But “Where is the bathroom?” followed by “I’m hot!” is not a coherent or meaningful conversation. To be meaningful requires that you not only sling the words, but you also “get” when they are appropriate.
Only time, patience and experience can give you that knowledge. So, by all means, do your very best to speak the language. Just keep in mind that you have an accent, and won’t always get things right. You’ll spend a lot of time fumbling your way through the conversation and make all kinds of embarrassing errors; but that’s how experience is gained: one mistake at a time. (Even very good horse men and women mess things up with more frequency than they would ever admit to.) To be a "surface worker" isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but by itself, it is insufficient. You also need to engage the horse’s mind, heart, and spirit. If you can do that even some of the time, it will have a tremendously big impact on how you perceive your horses and how they perceive you.