After a lot of harassment from various people who like ebooks rather than paperback, I have finally pulled my finger out and my book The Essence of Good Horsemanship is now available in kindle format from Amazon.com. http://amzn.to/2DnHIW7
For many years I would spend several weeks a year in Arizona visiting and working with my friend, Harry Whitney. One time Harry and I went to the general store to get some groceries in the small country town where he lived. As I was browsing the aisles I noticed a big burly rough looking bloke at the other end of the store. But what caught my eye more than his general appearance was that he had a gun holstered to the side of his hip. My eyes instantly widened and my blood pumped faster. Everything inside me went on alert mode. In my head, I heard sirens blaring and saw strobbed warning lights everywhere.
I sidled up to Harry as casually and inconspicuously as I could and said in a quiet voice something like, “Harry I think we should get out of here. There’s a guy over there with a gun.”
Harry looked at the man and calmly replied, “It’s okay. He’s allowed to carry a gun into the store. Don’t worry.” I couldn’t have been more shocked by Harry’s nonchalant attitude than if he had told me he was taking me to a Satanic prayer meeting. I never took my eyes off the man while I waited for Harry to finish his shopping. It was a huge relief when we finally drove out of the parking lot leaving the man and his gun behind us.
I was convinced we had just had a lucky escape from a life and death situation and I was troubled why Harry didn’t see it that way. If the same scenario had occurred at home, I know there was a high probability it was not going to end well. The event made such an impact on me that I still think about it 15 or more years later, yet I suspect if Harry were asked about it he wouldn’t be able to recall it because it probably made very little impression with him.
So what is the point of this tale?
I have recounted a couple of times in previous posts that one of the most important lessons I learned when I was a PhD student came from my supervisor who said, “Assume everything you are told is wrong until you are satisfied it is not.” This is a lesson I had to learn and it has been both life changing and invaluable. But while it took more than two decades for me to learn this lesson, horses are born with this insight.
From day one a horse knows that their best chance of staying alive is to assume everything they don’t understand is dangerous until they are convinced it is not. Their reaction to new things or things that are not on their “okay” list is to assume it is dangerous.
This was my response to the man in the store with the gun. I didn’t understand that an ordinary man in the street with a gun did not necessarily pose a threat, so my reaction was to invoke the flight response. I was confused why would a person carry a gun into a shop if it were not to do harm?
Now consider a horse that feels the tightening of a lead rope for the first time. The pressure the horse feels from the halter when a person pulls on the lead rope must have a horse asking the same question I did about the man with the gun. A horse must wonder why would anyone apply pressure on its head if it were not to do harm? So why wouldn’t a horse try to pull away? Why wouldn’t it try to resist? Doing nothing or yielding to the pull might get it killed. Of course, it has to resist or defend itself in some way.
A horse is made to see the world in terms of life and death. Their sense of survival is always close to the surface and strongly linked to every decision they make. When you begin to appreciate this truth about horses you begin to respect that the bad choices they make are never personal and never intended to make our life harder. That’s why there is no place for punishment in good horsemanship. A horse’s mistakes and their bad choices are not about us, but about the lack of clarity and the poor job we have done in satisfying their need to feel safe and comfortable.
Photo: Both Jana and her horse Arnie exhibited resistance to the leg yield because from their perspective it threatened their safety. But I am trying to convince them it is not with a very stylish demonstration.
When a horse feels poorly it is always accompanied by a degree of resistance. This resistance can appear as a multitude of different symptoms that range from almost imperceptible (eg a slight leaning on the reins or minor crookedness) to quite severe (eg bolting or uncatchable). Sometimes the resistance has many faces and is not represented by a single symptom.
It is common that the emotions that are the source of the trouble are so established that it is as if the request from the rider and the ill feelings and the poor response (resistance) are super glued together. Every time a horse is asked for a response the emotional trouble and accompanying resistance are triggered simultaneously. They are inseparable. This is often because a pattern of ill feelings and resistance are tightly linked to a rider’s request.
It’s quite a common occurrence that simply adjusting the pressure or changing the timing to add more clarity to the rider’s cues cannot break this pattern. It’s like when asked by a person at the supermarket checkout “how are you?” a person always gives the same response even without thinking about it. It’s a tried and true pattern that isn’t broken by simply changing the speed of the question or the volume or pitch the question is asked. In order to break the pattern it might require asking the question in a different way such as “If I were to ask you are you suffering any health issues today, what would your response be?” This change in the way we were asked might break our traditional response or at least give us pause to think about the question for a moment.
Let me give you an example. A while back I posted a series of stories about my horse Satts. He had developed the pattern of feeling defensive in an aggressive way when I applied leg pressure. He would feel my leg being applied to his sides and instantly swing around to grab my leg. It was almost like a reflex. The behaviour came from ill feelings caused by lack of understanding about how to yield to a rider’s leg pressure. Just applying more leg pressure or alternating my left leg and right leg pressure or using a tap from a whip to support the notion of moving forward to my leg pressure was not enough to eradicate those bad feelings. The aggression and the attempt to bite my leg persisted.
I knew I had to break the pattern and I chose to break it by doing something totally different that Satts would not expect and would not automatically trigger his aggression. So I rode with a dog toy that would squeak when squeezed. It instantly broke the pattern of aggression because Satts did not know how to respond – he did not have a pattern of response to squeaky dog toys. He quickly figured out that when he heard the sound, relief was found in moving forward with energy. At first, it was fear driven, but then it became a response from understanding. Once this was established, introducing my leg to accompany the squeaking was a minor issue. In a short time, I could dispense with using the dog toy and Satts was very comfortable going forward from leg and seat pressure alone.
In a second scenario with a horse that was stuck about going forward from my leg pressure, I used a very different approach to break his pattern. He was a very stuck gelding that would plant his feet harder the more leg pressure I applied. Whenever I wanted a bigger walk or a trot or a canter, the horse would wring his tail violently, fling his head and make only a token attempt to put out more energy.
This went on for a couple of weeks or so and I wasn’t making a lot of headway. Finally, I was riding in a large arena with a friend. I ask the friend to ride around the outside of the arena at a trot and as she came up behind me I wanted her to ask her horse to canter. At the same time, I would ask my horse to canter (something I never been able to achieve up to then). So my friend trotted ahead and went around the perimeter of the arena, while I kept encouraging my horse with more forward. I heard her approaching from behind and when she was within about 4 or 5 strides behind me she asked her horse to canter alongside my horse. At the same time, I asked my horse to canter.
As my friend’s horse started to go past us, my horse took off like a NASA rocket. We went past my friend and her horse like they were a blur. There was no holding my horse back – he was gone and bolting as fast as he could. Everybody else in the arena scattered and we were heading for the fence out of control. My horse was either going to slide to a stop or try to jump and I prepared for either event. But in 2 strides before the fence, my horse skidded to a stop and hit the wall with a bang against his chest. From that time on he showed amazing improvement and I was able to ride him with a lot more forward and far less ill feeling. The pattern was broken. I’m not suggesting you try to make your horse bolt to break a pattern, but there is a lesson to learn here.
When we allow a pattern to become ingrained, sometimes we need to think outside of the box of our own patterns. The link between a trigger (pressure), a response (horse’s behaviour) and poor emotions needs to be broken if we are to help horses that carry deep ill feelings change for the better.
We are the smarter species and it seems a shame that we sometimes fail to use our smartness and default to our own pattern with no change in our clarity.
Photo: I don’t know what is going on in this photo, but there is something about the thinking of a fellow who works a horse in his pyjamas and dressing gown.