Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Rule of Three

New experiences rarely go smoothly the first time we try them. Sometimes the thing we are attempting doesn’t even happen. We know this, usually, going into the effort. First bike ride, first attempt at cooking, first driving lesson. Even a first kiss. So back we go to give it another shot, and after a while we get pretty good at it.

This isn’t an unfamiliar pattern when we’re learning to ride, either. We get that. The old saying is that it takes two lifetimes to master the art of dressage. We know we can get pretty good in one, though, and a lot of us do. Many of us spend a great deal of time training horses to the discipline we’ve chosen, and there’s a familiar progression of events that go along with a horse’s athletic development.

Unfortunately, there are always problems.

Never mind. There’s time tested ways of dealing with problems, resistances, issues—whatever you want to call them, and people who will teach them to you.

But sometimes the solution to the problem doesn’t seem to work, and we kick harder, push harder, do whatever we think needs attending to more…and we still have the same progress-stopping issue. Often, having tried the chosen solution once, we discard it. Or, we persist in addressing a dilemma with a solution that doesn’t work at all. Either way it’s frustrating for us, as well as our horse.

Over the years I’ve noticed a pattern. If I give the course of action I’ve chosen three separate tries without changing anything about my aids I will know if my horse has understood, and if the solution I’ve chosen needs adjustment or abandonment.

It’s the Rule of Three. It’s very simple. Regardless of my horse’s response the first time the aids are applied, on the second attempt there should be a glimmer of change. On the third try there should be marked improvement—enough to let me know I have been understood and my four-legged friend is grasping the idea and making the effort. If, on the third try, there is no significant improvement, then I must reevaluate what I’m doing and ask myself what specifically isn’t being understood.

If a horse is calm, he will do as he’s asked provided he understands the request and is physically able to do it. When he is allowed to try, without being hammered at, he will often surprise you with his generosity.

It’s our job, as rider and teacher to give him the chance to demonstrate what he understands, abandon a tactic when it is useless, and discover what he needs from us to do what we ask. The Rule of Three is a guide to measure understanding and success, as well as put a limit on frustration.


  1. This is fascinating - can you provide more specific examples of what you are teaching your horse as you apply the rule of three?

  2. Thank you, Joyce! Yes! I'd be happy to give an example. I'll relate a situation fresh out of yesterday: The movment is called the turn on the forehand. In it, the horse describes a small circle with the front legs and a larger circle with the hind (yes, it's kind of sideways on a circle--think about describing a doughnut!). It's good for stretching and suppling the hind legs of the horse, and also helps the horse arrange his balance. The rider decides on the precise track of the small circle (it's important to know your line of travel), and applies the aids. Generally, the horse will swing wide of the intended path, because he won't step the hind quarters out, or he will stop and shuffle around, or both :) If the rider keeps the movement in mind, and not the disobedience, the horse will keep trying. Eventually, he will relax a bit, lower his neck, and make a correct step or two. This, by the way, could be entirely guess work on the horse's part. At that point the rider will allow the horse to walk forward, out of the movement. After a number of strides, the rider will ask again for a turn on the forehand. It may start out in the same clumsy manner, but the horse will likely reach that point of relaxation and close-to-correct movement of the legs sooner. Once again, the rider allows the horse to go forward, and after a few tries, asks the third time. If the rider has been correct in the way she has been approaching this educational opportunity, the third try will prove it. The horse may take one or two uncertain steps, but then will confidently execute the turn on the forehand.

    Of course it may not be by-the-book perfect, but if the session went correctly, the improvement will almost seem magical. If not, it gives the rider a chance to think through her aids, evaluate what was going on, and make an adjustment or two. AND avoid frustrating repetition that gets neither horse or rider any place good.

    Hope that helps you visualize the process. Thanks for stopping by and for the question!

  3. I like the rule of threes and can think of how we can apply that to marketing and promotion, as well as craft in our writing.

    Another great thing learned from your horse (horse work), Susan. Thank you for sharing! I love this blog. :)

    Ann Charles

  4. It's like W C Fields said, "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There's no point in being a damn fool about it." :) I'll just ammend it to say "reevaluate" instead of "quit"!

    Thanks, Ann!