Several years ago I was asked to give a demonstration at a pony club rally. I was surrounded by a group of 20 or more girls between the ages of 7 and 14 years. I don’t know if my demonstration had any impact or not, but at the end of the session I asked if any of them had a question they would like to ask. A cute kid of about 8 or 9 put up her hand.
“Um, sometimes when I ride my pony out on, um, a trail, um, we go about a mile, um down the road, um and she stops and, um bucks me off and, um then runs home.”
I immediately started to think about ways I could help this little girl teach her pony not to buck her off. In my head I was thinking of telling her about hindquarter yields and trying to keep the pony busy when she knows the buck is coming etc. But the girl fooled me. I did not expect the question that was most burning in her young mind.
“Um, how do I stop her from running home after she, um bucks me off because it’s a long walk back?”
I laughed. I know I shouldn’t have, but I couldn’t help it. I was sure she wanted to know how to prevent the bucking, not how to teach the horse to not run off after it bucked. But the girl had her priorities. The bucking didn’t bother her. She just hated the walk home.
When I think of that story I think of how we all see things differently. We see our horse’s behaviour from our own perspective, not our horse’s.
For example, if we have a horse that baulks when loading into a trailer, we practice trailer loading. But because we don’t see poor trailer loading as a leading problem we don’t practice better leading everywhere we go – we just practice better trailer loading. In our eyes, trailer loading is the problem, not leading.
If our horse shies a lot on the trail, we try to desensitize it to different objects and situations because we think the shying is the result of fear of different objects. We don’t always see a lack of focus as the cause of the shying. We practice desensitization and ignore the poor focus.
If we have a horse that lacks straightness and balance when we ride a circle we try to use more inside leg and outside rein to fix it because we are not aware that the horse’s focus is to the outside of the circle rather than the circumference of the circle. We physically try to place the horse straight on the circle instead of getting them to think on the circle.
People are always chasing symptoms, because it is the symptom that most bothers us. We view the symptom as the thing that gets in the way of what we want to do. Without the symptom there would be no problem; or at least we wouldn’t know we had a problem. I mean, how many of us would know we had a cold if we didn’t have a blocked nose, headache and cough? We figure that if we cured the symptom we cure the cold.
But that is a very human-like perspective. In fact, it is self-centred. Horses exhibit unwanted behaviour because they have a problem with what we want. If we cure the symptom, we may have solved our problem, but we still leave the horse with its problem. For instances, teaching the horse to standstill using hobbles may cure our problem of a fidgety horse, but the horse’s problem of feeling the need to fuss and fidget remains unresolved. Forcing obedience on a horse does nothing to fix its turmoil.
It’s part of being human to make riding, training and handling all about us. We rug (blanket) horses in warm weather to keep their coat nice. We trim a horse’s whiskers and apply makeup and false tails to enhance their appeal to the judges. We use gadgets to enforce obedience and submission. We start, ride and compete with horses that are too young to do the job. We choose the instructors, trainers and clinicians that we do because they make us feel good about us.
The little girl at the pony club did not realize that the solution to her problem of having to trudge the long walk home was not to teach her horse to stand still after she fell off, but to teach it not to buck her off. She was just kid – I wouldn’t expect her to think about what’s the best thing to do for her horse. But I’d like to believe that she went home that day and had a talk to her parents about how to help her pony feel okay enough that it didn’t have to buck her off.