Something from Nothing
If you’ve ever experienced awkward silence you know the tension that can build with each passing second. It creates an uneasy feeling that isn’t resolved until someone starts talking again. I’ve worked with horses (from the ground and from the saddle) that display a similar uneasiness when I pause after having just completed a maneuver. It’s as if they don’t know how to just stand there and do nothing.
Common causes include insecurity, impatience, confusion and “anticipation”. I see insecurity as a confidence issue, impatience as a maturity issue, and confusion is simply a lack of understanding. As for anticipation, horses are easily conditioned. What many call “anticipation” I see more as a conditioned response where we have inadvertently taught a horse to associate one thing with another through repetition. An example of “anticipation” would be wiggling the leadrope to back up your horse, rubbing their forehead and praising them and then immediately, upon lowering your hand, wiggling the leadrope for another back up. After a few repetitions, your horse will see the lowering of your hand after praising them as a cue to back up before you even begin wiggling the leadrope.
So what is the remedy for a horse that is uncomfortable with “silence”? Hint: A quote from White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, “Don’t just do something, stand there!” Yes, we should do more of NOTHING. After we’ve asked the horse to do something, we should pause and do nothing. Make “nothing” the sweet spot. Build their confidence in nothing. Help them learn to be patient about nothing. Help them understand that nothing IS the thing. By doing more of nothing after each something, they will quit “anticipating” the next thing. Everything we do with our horses should create sweet spots—that includes making NOTHING the sweet spot when we’re not wanting anything. It’ll help them mature and become confident when waiting in silence for the next thing. It's wonderful when your horse can sit with you in silence without feeling awkward.
Remember, it’s Horsemanship NOT Forcemanship.